Long Live the Panarchy

Big projects have a higher chance of failure than small projects, primarily for sociological and communicative reasons. Some sources even claim that the odds of successful completion of a project disappear almost completely with large-scale projects.

But I’m an anarchist, and an optimist. I believe we can solve these problems by breaking things down and then blowing them up. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Agilists and anarchists break up big projects into small projects, and they break up large organizations into small organizations. Then they blow things up by scaling the small working parts to similar-looking big working parts. An agile organization is the inverse of bureaucracy through top-down planning. It is adaptability through bottom-up growth.

With the rise of global markets, the Internet, social networks, and other network-like developments, there is a global trend that looks very similar to the emergence of agile organizations. On a transnational scale such a network is called a panarchy. I love the word, because it is just one letter removed from my natural state of mind.

The emerging complexity of our social and political structures, composed of many interacting agents, combined with the increasing importance of network forms of organization, enabled by technologies that increase connectivity, propels the world system towards a transformation that culminates in a global political environment that is made up of a diversity of spheres of governance, the whole of which is called panarchy. To clarify, global linkages between individuals and groups create transnational networks consisting of shared norms and goals. […] Panarchy is governance as a complex adaptive system of anarchical networks that relies on diversity and resists hierarchy in order to function and adapt.
Panarchy: Governance in the Network Age – Paul Hartzog

A panarchy is a system of overlapping networks of collaboration and authority. As an individual I subject myself not only (unwillingly) to the authority of my government, but also (willingly) to that of my bank, my Internet and energy providers, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, sports and game clubs, non-profit and charity organizations, and foreign governments when I’m traveling abroad. (And other people can add religious and political organizations to that list.)

There are many sources of authority in the world, and as an individual I choose to subject myself to the rules and norms of any group or organization that I wish to participate in. The only one I cannot choose directly is my government. (Unless I pick up my stuff and move somewhere else.)

These days being an anarchist is not what it used to be. I now call myself a panarchist. A panarchist is an anarchist who is acting peacefully. Brian Marick, one of the original signatories of the Agile Manifesto, has similar ideas and calls it Artisanal Retro-Futurism crossed with Team-Scale Anarcho-Syndicalism. But I think the word panarchy is easier. And I hope the stickers are cheaper.

The rise of global network governance is a process that is to some extent shaped by states, but it is not controlled by them, and it is also shaped by corporations, individuals, non-governmental organizations, and other groups. It is as yet unclear if any one of those entities trumps the others, although realists would claim the state holds the trump card, and Marxists would claim that it is capital that is in the driver’s seat. History has shown that ultimately it is the people who are in charge, and the new connective technologies have only increased their power and ability to organize collective action.
Panarchy: Governance in the Network Age” – Paul Hartzog

We can now understand why true agile organizations are panarchies. They have multiple sources of authority within the agile organization, including those dealing with architecture, GUI design, project management, and infrastructure. Each team can subject itself, willingly, to the rules and norms of some specialist groups. But they can also form such functional teams themselves, or simply decide to do everything inside their own team. There is plenty of freedom to be anarcho-syndicalist or peacefully anarchist. The only choice people usually cannot make themselves is that of line management. Unless they move to another organization.

A panarchy is an organic approach to organizational design, resulting in a fractal-like structure of small hierarchies which are all superimposed on one another in one big network. And because it favors scaling out over scaling up, there is no end to the growth of a panarchy. In fact, a worldwide panarchy is already in place. It is called the United Nations. As an anarchist I complain about its bureaucracy, and the less it does the better. But being peaceful I’m willing to accept it for what it is. After all, which other planet can I go to?

(Note: if you find this interesting, please attend my session at Agile 2010, on Thursday, August 12.)

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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